When Paul Newman set up his Newman’s Own brand to generate millions of dollars for charity each year, he was called a “food philanthropist”. Farmers in Africa started planting chilli peppers around fields to deter elephants from trampling the crops, and then got the idea of selling “Elephant Pepper” hot sauces to fund elephant conservation. Gordon Ramsay did his Seriously Good sauces for Comic Relief but, in Britain, we’ve been slow to catch on to food philanthropy. Now, that’s all starting to change, and street food is leading the way.
JP Campbell runs the Elephant Juice soup van in Edinburgh. “I was inspired by the compassionate capitalists who came up with the ‘buy one, give one’ business model” he says. So, for every bowl of soup he sells Campbell promises to feed a hungry person in need. In hard cash, that’s 30p per sale – and every week he pays out to Equipe Global, a charity with feeding programmes in Africa, India and the Philippines.
Campbell used to work as an insolvency lawyer in corporate restructuring, trying to recover cash from struggling businesses.
“It was ugly” says Campbell. “I saw the consequences of greed – the dirty face of the recession. I wanted to be doing something a lot more positive.” He came up with the name because ‘Elephant Juice’ shares the same lip movements as ‘I love you’. “Given that the business helps customers feed hungry people in need, I thought it made sense.”
So far, Elephant Juice is just Campbell. He’s the one who drives the van, avoids the traffic wardens, and makes up the soup – 50 litres at a time. “This morning I peeled and chopped 12.5 kilos of carrots, 7 kilos of beetroot, a box of leeks and a sack of onions.” But the queues speak for themselves.
“My carrot and coconut has got a fair waft to it” he says. “So has my cullen skink. However well-intentioned the whole philanthropy idea is, I know my product sells itself.”
A string of smart new street food kiosks opening in Liverpool this summer will be selling everything from Italian to Thai, Mexican and Chinese cuisine. They won’t look radically different. But they will be – they’ll be run by ex-offenders. Can Cook, a cookery school in Garston, is starting its first training course in Liverpool prison next week, teaching inmates everything from barista basics to the art of stir-fry and secrets of great pastry.
“The inmates know that this could really be a great opportunity” says Robbie Davison, the director of Can Cook. “It could, potentially, be a six-month run into self employment”.
Davison has seized on the idea of street food as rehab. An agent for social change. And he knows what he’s talking about – Can Cook’s work teaching underprivileged youngsters how to cook won Social Enterprise of the Year 2011 at the Downtown Liverpool Business awards.
“Everyone understands about locking people up” says Davison. “It’s easy. But what about when the people come out? Whose problem are they then? I don’t know anybody who has done a stretch in prison who comes out ready for work. One prisoner said to me, ‘When I leave, there won’t be any work. But there will always be lots of cocaine.’ And there they are – on minimum wage. The temptation is for them to reoffend. Our street food model offers them a real chance.”